Fresh from going a year unbeaten in the league, Liverpool hosted Everton for a Merseyside derby in the FA Cup.
Jurgen Klopp made nine changes to the team that dominated Sheffield United, keeping only Joe Gomez and James Milner (who was replaced by teenager Yasser Larouci just minutes into the game due to an injury) while giving Takumi Minamino his Liverpool debut in a team mostly made up of youngsters. Minamino started the match in the central attacking role of Liverpool’s usual 4-3-3 formation.
Everton’s last hope at a trophy this season, Carlo Ancelotti put out a full-strength side in a 4-4-2 formation.
Liverpool started the game pressing high up the pitch, giving the youngsters the perfect platform to make a good impression. Keen to the make the most of their opportunity, they would go racing after the Everton defenders, making it difficult for the away side to play out from the back.
Everton did manage the better of the chances early on though. When discussing Liverpool’s press, the focus tends to be on the hard work of the frontmen (and for good reason, they do an incredible amount of defensive running, especially when compared to certain “stars” of other teams) yet arguably the role of the midfielders is more complicated: they have to cover the midfielders dropping back behind the Liverpool frontline, the midfielders higher up the pitch and the players out wide.
Unsurprisingly given he’s both only 18 and a more natural attacking player, Curtis Jones struggled with this. The attackers would push up to close down the defenders, Divock Origi and Harvey Elliot positioning themselves to be able to close down the centre-backs while blocking the pass out to the full-backs, and Jones would push up behind them to ensure Morgan Schneiderlin wasn’t left free, only for Everton to slip the ball into a wide player behind him.
He was clearly wary of this danger (which is half the battle), as it wasn’t as if he was constantly skin-tight to Schneiderlin, and he would immediately drop back into a covering position as soon as the pass was made to ensure Everton couldn’t advance further. He just couldn’t quite work out the right position to both cut off the pass out wide while staying close enough to Schneiderlin to press him if he received the ball, allowing Everton to slip the ball through a couple of times. Both Neco Williams and Larouci were happy to rush forward far into Everton’s half to press though, ensuring that Liverpool were well-covered when Everton passed out to the flanks.
Everton also had some success by simply pumping the ball forward. Jordan Pickford’s kicking is very good and Nat Phillips seemed to be on the losing end of the early aerial duels. It’s difficult to tell why as we only see the end of these tussles due to the camera being pointed at the other end of the pitch when Pickford kicked the ball, however it looked like he was either misjudging the flight of the ball or losing out in the wrestling match to Dominic Calvert-Lewin that accompanied every header. He also didn’t appear to be the quickest at turning, however few are going to come out favourably when replacing Virgil van Dijk and sat next to Gomez.
Larouci was semi-frequently caught unaware by runners in behind him, but that’s to be expected of a teenager and he was able to recover most of the time due to his pace.
Everton had the better of the chances early on, yet the game was even and the momentum seemed to be tipping in Liverpool’s direction as it went on. Everton had basically been hitting the ball long or wide then knocking it on for their attackers, mainly Theo Walcott, running in behind, but as Liverpool settled, they dealt with these attacks with greater ease. Everton offered little else as an alternative – they actually got worse, just smacking aimless hoofs forward towards the end of the match – handing the game to their rivals.
Adam Lallana seemed like an obvious choice for a senior player to calm down the youngsters if they were nervous – someone who they could pass to under pressure knowing that he would be able to keep hold of it. The 31 year-old was fairly manic though, rushing around and snatching some shots early on. However, Liverpool weren’t lacking a calm head: Pedro Chirivella was superb at the base of the midfield, taking up excellent positions to provide an outball for his teammates under pressure and moving the ball around with simple passes. If given the opportunity, he picked out long balls forward or through balls into the attackers between the lines with beautiful clean technique.
Williams also picked out some lovely crosses, but perhaps more impressive was the maturity he showed when the cross wasn’t on. Many older players would swing a cross in even if no one was there to get on the end of it, yet the young Welshman would turn around and play the other way if the option wasn’t there, doing his best to shield the ball under heavy pressure to keep things ticking over.
Filling in for Roberto Firmino as a false nine, Minamino was another stand-out performer. The Japanese was constantly taking up positions to receive the ball between the lines and had the confidence to turn with it, while his willingness to come short or drift towards the right opened up space for Origi through the middle.
It’s Jones that grabbed everybody’s attention though. The young Scouser was always demanding the ball and looking to attack. Sometimes he mistimed his runs, but he varied them nicely, switching between running in behind the Everton defence and staying between the lines to receive the ball. He did so to great effect with twenty minutes left to play, holding back just outside the area to receive the ball back from Origi and curl a shot past the outstretched leg of Yerry Mina and out of the reach of Pickford into the far corner.
It was a game that showed the benefits of playing what is on paper a weakened team. These were all players with a point to prove and little worry about having to hold themselves back to make sure they were fit to play again in a few days’ time. The game becomes a write-off, creating a more forgiving atmosphere to ease the young players into first team football. Everton on the other hand had to tangle with Manchester City four days ago and now have to buoy themselves up again to welcome Brighton after being embarrassed by a load of kids.